Fring – the All in One iPhone App

April 15, 2008

in iphone, Mobility, VoIP

I’ve been reading the hype today about the first iPhone VoIP app. Fring Beta iPhone launched today. What we read is all wow wow. What we have is a Fring beta on an unsupported platform that works and still needs work. I’m impressed and not impressed at the same time. As a proof of concept it’s pretty neat, although take care not to gloss over the details for that is what makes one of these apps really work. My intent here is to be both balanced and provide some input. It’s also been a long time since there has been much more than a “yawn” in the VoIP arena.

There’s not much different out there today. Conceptually, these integrative VoIP Chat products are now years in the making. The only ones that continues to work really well are Skype on the PC and Truphone on the mobile. For me these set the quality standard. Both have mastered audio codecs. However, if Fring gets the call quality right then look out. It could be quickly on every iPhone.

Topline Points:

  • It runs all the time in the background. I added my Twitter account. That’s real time chat too now! It stays on in the background. It’s still too basic although it updates the Twitter feed with a “from Fring” for marketing purposes. It’s more timely that Twitterriffic although the sound is annoying.
  • I made Skype calls and SkypeOut calls with varying degrees of success. Biggest problems were latency or / and breakup of the calls — stuttering was heard. The principle is fine, the quality remains unusable at this time. Blame it on “available memory” in the iPhone, latency in their bridge, their interconnect system etc. Skype was also slow to login
  • I used my Gizmo5 account to use the dialer to make SIP calls. It dialed my Truphone account, and other Gizmo accounts. I could only use it as SIP out. Again significant latency. If the latency went to zero the dialer provides me with a super way to instantly access two low cost calling plans. Their SIP interconnect is much faster. They should talk to Mobivox or High Speed Conferencing about Skype connections. I’m still not sure their solution is scalable.

  • Texting on Skype was great. In fact putting the iPhone on the desk and chatting in a two fingers mode was the fastest I have ever chatted / typed on a mobile device. I wasn’t slow! That was cool. Other mobile chat clients tried to date on the iPhone basically don’t use the Skype and Gtalk I’m on. Why bother with a chat only client when you can have everything in one? As noted chat is a commodity. Talk is about to become one too. Chat but not VoIP continued to work on the Edge network.

Where Fring Continues to make you think.

Identity:
If they have a system that effectively aggregates all your various ID’s and your phone number with SIP then the Fring ID could become almost anything you want. It could be your Facebook ID number or an OpenID. If everyone starts bridging all their communities with Fring in the longrun it is just a Fring to Fring connection. Their model is low cost because it uses SkypeOut or SIP. They don’t have a billing infrastructure to worry about. Billings are where the problems start for many of these companies.

All in One:
As Andy points out they had the gumption to put their app out there while other providers simply wait (Truphone, Jajah, Gizmo. I think this was smart. It needs testing, VoIP apps survive based on quality of the call. It’s hard to test without a global community and reaching out to a small group will make testing a whole lot easier. There’s plenty of other apps being tested like this now. I’m sure most will go through the iPhone store. What’s now created is a rush to which app will be the VoIP app of preference? It’s obviously easy enough to get SIP on the iPhone. Fring compared to Truphone and Jajah potentially has the upper hand if call quality is matched. It has “chat” built in. As the app will be “free” I doubt they are risking their “Apple” acceptablity. By contrast a Jajah or Truphone plans on charging. That may present a problem.

Business Model:

Where’s the business model? It’s not in the minutes. There’s no billing structure. Could it be in location? What happens when Fring add location information and begins providing it between Fringsters? Will the iPhone create a community that makes Fring a really desireable? Is Fring obsoleting all other chat clients with their all in one? (Probably not yet!) Will I be prepared to trust Fring with my location details? Don’t know. Still Fring could become a powerful network of distributed profiles. It could also share different profile with different people in the future. First it has to get millions of users and so far it has struggled.

These things continue to Fringing frustrate me:

Presence: Usability of the presence indicator. Fring color coding of the presence indicator is just confusing. I’ve written about this before. I just have a hard time knowing which account I’m connecting with someone one. Particularly as they may have the same name. I don’t want to communicate with someone on Gtalk when I’d normally do it on Skype or Yahoo etc. It may be unexpected, it may pop up at the wrong time etc. I actually know my “clients” and who they connect to. If you cannot tell me which channel they would like to be contacted on then at least make it easy for me to make the choice.

Communities page.
After logging in if you go to edit the account it logs you out and you have to start again. There is no easy on or off. I may not want to be logged onto all my IM accounts at once. Having to put the name and password in each time is a pain. Edit should be handled like Apple handles contacts. Plus given the ease.. why not more than one gtalk account or SIP account, yahoo etc.?

Mode: When selecting a buddy I then have to make a choice. Call or Chat. For the most part i want chat. Combine the choice into the chat window by putting “call” up in the top right when available. There will be no extra clicks to make a call. Then the whole system could be more apple contact list behavior like. Deletes and arrows. Note there is no way to clean up the jabber contacts that may be anything but a clear name. Indeed why not partner with one of the Facebook Wall Apps and integrate that too. Having seen other apps integrate with the

Skype Multichats:
This deserves a mention although I skirted around the problem using a “mobile” ID with limited buddies. Skype multichats and Fring are a problem. When you have a Skype account that get’s mulitchats they get broken up by individual. If you have been offline for awhile it can simply lock up your phone. The problem is Skype’s but it means you cannot use a Skype account where you are in longterm Skype multichats.

Perhaps less frustrating but still confusing to me. I added the iPhone but couldn’t use any of my old Nokia accounts; maybe they are dead who knows. There was also no email confirmation etc. Yes it is still very much beta.

Speculation:

Fring gets bought by Apple. Saves them billions relative to buying Skype which would be an overnight killer success on the iPhone. In fact Skype owned by Apple wipes out many opportunities for VoIP developments. Combine the best of both and there is a reason as powerful as itunes to buy an iphone. A good SIP client on the iPhone can beat Skype. The call quality must be there!

The counter to this. Apple likes doing things themselves. Still Skype grew the total global market for minutes. VoIP on the iPhone will do the same. Time is running out for Apple to make a decision. Even Skype should be able to launch an iPhone client (we’d hope!!!) yet they will foolishly see this as a low priority. That would be another dumb Skype mistake.

Truphone and Jajah won’t launch with jabber/aim/gtalk chat integration. That will be a mistake! AND Sightspeed will beat them all by launching a video chat client. Launch it anyways even if the camera is on the wrong side. Ever heard of the hotel mirror? New accessories are created and more….

The games are really still to begin.

  • http://www.zatznotfunny.com Dave Zatz

    As far as business model guys, in speaking to these guys I think they hope to make money by making deals with handset manufacturers and carriers to pre-load fring while simultaneously exploring in-app advertising.

  • http://www.henshall.com Stuart

    Dave,
    Thanks for the comment. I’d have to say it sounds a little weak to me. I really think VoIP and Chat are commodities. The best service will win and it will be free. Where I see value is when that service also manages my location information / brokers it and perhaps brokers different profiles at the same time. Then it also needs to control access for me on my behalf. That’s something I’m prepared to pay for.
    Cheers
    Stuart

  • http://www.lucafiligheddu.com luca Filigheddu

    Very good points Stuart. And your speculation is fair. Fring is the most complete VoIP/IM mobile client available to date and this can make the difference.

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